TOKYO - Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said Sunday he was “optimistic” about his country’s free trade talks with Japan but was unsure when the two countries could strike a deal.

Government ministers from the two countries failed to reach an agreement after five hours of negotiations in Tokyo on Saturday as they remained divided on Australia’s demand for a sharp cut in Japan’s import tariffs on beef. Abbott, due to meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Monday during a trip to Tokyo, told reporters: “I am optimistic about the free trade negotiations but they have been difficult.”

Asked if the two countries can work out a free trade agreement while he stays in Tokyo until Tuesday, Abbott said, “I am hopeful but not certain.” “There are still some final matters to be resolved and while we do want a swift conclusion, we want a satisfactory conclusion as well.” Abbott arrived in Tokyo on Saturday on the first leg of an East Asian tour which will later take him to South Korea and China.

Akira Amari, the Japanese minister of economic and fiscal policy, told reporters that the free trade talks were “moving in a good direction.” If it becomes clear that Japan and Australia are close to successfully concluding the talks, Australian farm products would have a competitive edge over US products in terms of tariffs, said Amari, who is also the minister in charge of Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) multilateral free trade talks. Canberra has called on Tokyo to cut its tariffs on beef by half from a current 38.5 percent, in return for the abolition of a five-percent tariff imposed on Japanese automobile exports to Australia, according to media reports. On Saturday, Australian trade minister Andrew Robb and Japanese farm minister Yoshimasa Hayashi agreed to continue negotiating a free trade pact after their latest round of talks, according to the Japanese side.

Hayashi and Robb had previously met 10 days earlier in Tokyo. If a deal were to be reached, Australia would become the first major exporter of farm produce, including beef, to conclude a free trade accord with Japan, the Kyodo news agency said.